I've taken my share of writing classes. Between college and now, I've sat through dozens of lectures, seminars, and workshops. I've listened to published authors, accomplished screenwriters, and fabulous liars. Every time, without fail, I was told the following:
Write what you know.
Only recently, since I've begun following a more contemporary group of authors and screenwriters, have I begun to understand the true meaning of that sentiment.
Specifically, it does have a meaning.
Write what you know is a lie.
And yet, at the exact same time, it is the only truth in writing.
"Write What You Know" (or WWYK) leads many writers down the wrong path. They think that, since they only know life from the perspective of one gender, that is the only one they are allowed to use. Or since they only knew a childhood as a farmer, that's the origin story for all their characters.
Or since they had no siblings, none of their characters will ever have brothers or sisters.
"Writing what you know" isn't meant to be a chain around your ankle. It's meant to be a foundation. No, it's meant to be the seeds you plant in the ground that will eventually, if nurtured and cared for, blossom into a story.
For example, most writers do not "know" what it is like to fight off evil empires, or fly spaceships, or make sweet love to aliens. Most writers have never killed a man with a fish, or set fire to their family home to destroy a ghost, or led a revolution against a Nazi stand-in. So how is it done?
SUPER SECRET REVEAL: Stories aren't actually "about" those things.
I wish I'd known this trick earlier. I swear, my past self really screwed the pooch on this one. It's so simple, and yet I didn't even think about it until one of my writing mentors spelled it out.
WWYK means that the crux of your story, the heart and soul, is something you understand. It means that the story is about people. It's about relationships. It's about (to quote Sam Sykes) elf butts and smooching.
The Lord of the Rings isn't about "the War," or "the Nazgul," or "the Boromir." It's about relationships. It's about friendship and sacrifice and duty and family. It's about all those things, and it just so happens to be set during the scariest times in these characters' lives.
Star Wars isn't about space battles or trade deficits. It's about a young man searching for his place in the universe, searching for meaning. It's about saving your friends, and that your parents don't define who you will become.
The best stories you've ever read might have had explosions and aliens and space wizards and Thanos, but that's not what makes a story. Characters make a story, and--whether you realize it or not--you know characters.
WWYK means that your story is about the relationships between your characters, about who they are and who they will be.
It's about finding their "needs" and "wants" and making sure the two diverge as much as possible.
It's about finding out what your character is good at and making sure they rarely get a chance to show off. (Luke Skywalker is a great pilot, but kind of a train-wreck on the ground. Guess how he has to face his father?)
You know what it's like to love, to lose, to suffer, to want, to hate. You "know" a lot of things you never thought about. Write that.
And when you're done writing all of those things down, you'll have a story worth reading. Because it's never been about the planet-cracking doom weapons. It's always been about making sweet love to aliens.
Always be write.